The Great British Bake Off: The show is still great, says former Shropshire contestant Diana Beard
Proudly offering us two delightful cakes she has baked using fruit from her own garden, Diana Beard is looking forward to the Great British Bake Off tonight.
The show, which has become something of an institution since its launch seven years ago, is back for a new series on Channel 4 after following an acrimonious switch from the BBC which seems to have divided Middle England more than almost as much as Brexit.
Channel 4 was accused of poaching the format, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins quit the show, swiftly followed by judge Mary Berry who also said she would be having no part in the new series.
Not so much high tea as High Noon.
But Diana, who was one of the stand-out characters in the 2014, has no such misgivings, and says she is very much looking forward to tonight’s programme. The new series will be fronted by Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig, while veteran Prue Leith will join Paul Hollywood on the judging panel. “I think sometimes you need to give things a bit of a shake-up, don’t you?” she says.
“It has been going for quite a long time now, so I hope it is a little bit different.
“I don’t know much about Noel Fielding, but Sandi Toksvig is very funny, and Prue Leith is excellent, she knows her own mind. It’s got all the right ingredients.”
“And there’s a 72-year-old lady on it, isn’t there?” she says. “I’ll need to be shouting for her.”
Diana, who inherited her love of baking from her mother Margaret Fearnall, only applied for the show after being talked into it by her nephews. “I never thought I had a chance of getting on,” she says.
“When I filled in the form, I was very light-hearted with my answers. When it said ‘what is your greatest achievement in life over the last 10 years?’, I assumed they meant something to do with baking, but I put “being with the same bloke for 40 years’.
Diana’s talent for baking first came to the public attention in the mid-1960s, when she began winning competitions held by Hanmer Women’s Institute and Maelor Young Farmers Club.
“I was never as good as my mum, she was a very talented baker, she used to win all the prizes,” she says. Diana also shared her love of baking with her own daughters and grand-daughters, but says that it is more difficult for people today to find the time for such hobbies.
“They are very busy, there are so many more opportunities nowadays,” she says.
“To begin with, I thought I would always be able to drop out if I didn’t want to do it, but as I went through the various auditions, and it got closer, I began to think maybe I could do this.”
She says her appearance in the show has transformed her life, putting her in great demand as a speaker, and also forming lifelong friendships.
The 12 contestants hold regular reunions, and Diana hosted a dinner for them in her garden.
“I think they were surprised, they didn’t realise it was quite so rural here. But since Bake Off I have been asked to do lots of talks, and I have discovered lots of places in rural Shropshire which I didn’t know existed.” She says part of the appeal of the show is the way that it brings so many people together who on the surface appear to have little in common, except for a shared love of baking.We were a good group, there was Molly who was 17, and I was 69, with everybody in between,” she says. “For such an eclectic mix of people to get on like we did, and still do, is something else.”
And she says she is still on very good terms with fellow contestant Iain Watters, despite the “bin-gate” controversy when she briefly removed Iain’s dessert from the freezer, leading to accusations of sabotage. I went down to his wedding last year,” she says. “There was never a problem between me and Iain, he stuck up for me afterwards.”
Diana’s advice for anybody taking up baking as a hobby is simply to do as much of it as you can.
“Baking isn’t perfect,” she says.
“You can bake something that is really good, and then do it exactly the same way again and it isn’t so good.
“But some of the best inspirations can come from mistakes.”
Diana hopes the new series will see a return to the simpler recipes, saying it’s appeal was the way it could engage with would-be bakers at home.
“I think in some of the later series it got a bit complicated,” she says.
“It’s best when people can see something being made on television, have a look in their cupboards at the ingredients they have, and say ‘I can have a go at that’.”
But while Diana’s love of baking is undimmed, she is no longer able to enjoy the fruits of her labour the way that she used to. She suffered a fall at a “bonding” dinner with fellow contestants in Newbury during the filming of the series, and her injuries left her with no sense of taste or smell.
“I got up from the meal, and I thought ‘something’s wrong’, and that’s the last I can remember until I woke up in the paramedic ambulance,” she says.
Her shock departure led to claims that she had quit in the wake of “bin-gate”, and it took a letter from her GP to a national newspaper to halt the speculation. Three years on, she is still unable to taste the lovingly prepared apple and raspberry cakes on the table in front of her, but refuses to be bitter about her loss of senses.
“It could have been a lot worse, so many people have suffered so many serious injuries after falls, it makes you appreciate what you have still got,” she says.
“I didn’t think the way I would leave Bake Off would be like that. I was so pleased when I reached round five, I had no expectations at all when I started, and we were all looking forward to the next week, which would be pastry week.”
Diana says that despite her initial reluctance to take part in the show, she loved the experience and would encourage anybody to have a go.
“I love people coming up to me in the street and saying ‘Were you on Bake Off?’, and I say ‘Yes, I did it’. I’ve been asked by people at Marks & Spencer in Shrewsbury, and I enjoy that. It’s like it really means something to someone.”